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Book Review: Alexander Wilson, the Scot Who Founded American Ornithology

By (May 2, 2013) No Comment

Alexander Wilson: The Scot Who Founded American Ornithologyalexander wilson

By Edward H. Burtt, Jr. & William E. Davis, Jr.

Harvard University Press, 2013

It was very likely the sight of a volume of Alexander Wilson’s ongoing masterwork American Ornithology, glimpsed in Louisville, Kentucky in 1810, that prompted young John James Audubon to begin work in earnest on his own masterwork, The Birds of America, and Audubon would have had one burning conviction in mind the whole time, an unflattering one: “I can certainly do better than THAT.”

Wilson had come to America from Scotland in 1794, eventually met the great American naturalist William Bartram, and in opening years of the 19th century undertook to create a massive illustrated compendium of all American birds. From 1808 to 1814 he brought out his American Ornithology volume by ponderous volume, and as Wilson’s newest biographers, Ohio Wesleyan’s Edward H. Burtt and Boston University’s William E. Davis emphasize, readers of Wilson’s book were getting something the newborn country had not yet seen – in both visual and philosophical terms:

Yet unlike the naturalist writers who preceded him, such as Cotton Mather, John Smith, Mark Catesby, even William Bartram, he did not write about nature as something to be feared, conquered, and tamed. Instead, Wilson wrote about the wonder of wilderness. He wrote as an observer of nature, an observer who was fascinated by what he saw. Even William Bartram, who would figure prominently in Wilson’s achievement, even Bartram who described nature in loving detail, always had an eye on what an excellent farm a stretch of land would be or how navigable the river was. Wilson wrote about the wilderness itself, about is aesthetic and spiritual value, about the wonder of birds and their lives.

In order to create his opus, Wilson trekked the byways of his adoptive country for years, watching birds, shooting birds, and sketching birds, with long intervals devoted to drumming up subscribers for the groundbreaking publication of his efforts. Burtt and Davis give that work a livelier and more thorough going-over than it’s had in a century. Alexander Wilson: The Scot Who Founded American Ornithology is a handily well-illustrated volume, but even if it weren’t, it would have felt that way thanks to our authors’ careful descriptions of everything Wilson sketched:

This graceful drawing of a White Ibis was on the back of the same sheet of paper as the drawing of the Green Heron. Paper was expensive and Wilson had limited means. Not that Wilson correctly shows how the coverts overlap the separation between adjacent underlying feathers, much like shingles on a roof overlap the gaps between underlying shingles. Previous illustrators had indicated incorrectly that the shaft of each feather was aligned with the shaft of the underlying feather, which, if true, would have allowed water to penetrate easily.

wilson1That note about the incorrect efforts of previous illustrators is struck throughout this book. Continuously, readers are reminded that Wilson’s diligent work and thoughtful artist’s eye got the whole American bird-business started. Burtt and Davis have read every word their man wrote (no mean feat: Wilson was an indefatigable correspondent) and every word written about him, and through it all, their aim has been fixed: to give credit where it’s long overdue:

Wilson addressed ornithological misinformation throughout American Ornithology by testing each myth, whether it was the disappearance of male Bobolinks or the hibernation of swallows in the mud at the bottom of ponds. He questioned the assertions of previous authors and tested their statements, rather than merely repeating them. In doing so he brought a new level of rigor to field biology generally and ornithology specifically.

There are those ‘previous’ authors again, and of course that’s the slight taste of futility that can’t help but linger around a book like this, because those previous authors aren’t the real problem, and Burtt and Davis know it. The real problem is a subsequent author, that ardent younger man who looked at Wilson’s work-in-progress and was seized with the certain conviction that he could do the same thing only better. And John James Audubon’s story unfolds in dogged later parallel: trekking down byways for years, watching, shooting, and sketching birds, taking long intervals to scout out subscribers to the work he was producing. And that work, The Birds of America, which appeared volume by ponderous volume from 1827 to 1839, was indeed better than American Ornithology.

Wilson has more birds named after him than any other American ornithologist, including Audubon, and now, thanks to Burtt and Davis, he has a superb modern-day biography and critical assessment, one every scholarly birder should buy and read. It’s entirely right that we regularly remember to give Alexander Wilson the credit for inventing the school and ethos of American bird-study. But in terms of reputation, he was pushed out of the nest by a louder and gaudier cuckoo-chick two centuries ago, and no amount of virtuous reappraisals can change that. It’s a good thing we have shelf-space for both.